This review was originally published last October when the movie screened at the New York Film Festival. It opens today in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto; it will expand to additional cities over the coming weeks. For more information on the film’s expansion schedule, please see Dash Shaw’s tumblr.
Over the past several years, Dash Shaw has earned widespread acclaim through writing and illustrating of graphic novels such as 2014’s Doctors. This year he unveiled a new type of project: his first feature length film, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea. Shaw’s animated movie premiered last month at the Toronto Film Festival before appearing this week at the New York Film Festival. My Entire High School is a thrilling, poignant movie, which demonstrates that Shaw’s skills stretches beyond the printed page.
Film by its nature is a collaborative process. When a movie is successful, it is the result of a variety of talented individuals blending their skills into a final product. At the same time, some filmmakers leave behind more prominent fingerprints than others. Most fans would be hard pressed to distinguish the characteristics of an Andrew Stanton directed Pixar film from a Peter Docter one. This is not a slight on the quality of their movies, which is quite high, but an observation about style. Meanwhile, other recent animated films such as Frankenweenie and Anomalisa are instantly recognizable as the products of Tim Burton and Charlie Kaufman’s idiosyncratic imaginations. Shaw’s My Entire High School fits into this second category. As with Frankenweenie or Anomalisa, My Entire High School is a visually striking, emotionally resonant experience. To watch it is to become fully immersed in the distinct vision of its creator.
The opening sequence of the movie immediately reveals an unconventional style. The viewer hears screams of terror as cutout figures slowly fall in-front of an abstract background dominated by a reddish-orange palette. The scene quickly cuts to black. A light goes on in a room, as the film’s protagonist wakes panting heavily. Bad dream? Vision of the future? Both? Questions for another day, as more looming challenges await: the first day of a school year (sophomore year to be specific). The flattened visual aesthetic carries over into the waking world, as the protagonist (named Dash) rushes for the bus. The backgrounds consist more of shifting shapes than solid objects. Instead of appearing as straight lines of text on the screen, the opening credits swirl in coils. The rhythmic score gives a propulsive urgency to Dash’s run for the bus. Once the bus arrives, the manic energy settles a little, though, the film never adapts a naturalistic vibe. Shaw declares from the outset that, as with his comics, he is more concerned with atmosphere and emotion than naturalism.
On the bus, Dash tries to convince his best (i.e. only) friend Assaf that Assaf should also be excited for the new school year. Over the summer, Dash got his acne under control and Assaf lost some weight, positive signs for gaining broader social acceptance. Not surprisingly events do not play out exactly as Dash had hoped. Expectations are rigid and Dash does not help matters with his own stubbornness. Dash is a contradictory character who is both marginalized by others and openly antagonistic to them. This personality trait is best expressed through his involvement with the school newspaper. At first this is a shared passion between him and Assaf. As they rush through the hallways, Dash eagerly dictates a survival guide for incoming freshman. Dash’s enthusiasm turns sour, though, as Assaf and Verti (the paper’s female staff member) grow closer. Dash runs smear articles against Assaf in the paper and has the offense placed on his permanent record. Panicked, as all youth are by the concept of a “permanent” anything, Dash goes digging through archives in search of the incriminating document. In the process, he finds something much scarier: faked safety evaluations attesting to the school’s sturdiness. Tides High is built on a cliff overlooking the ocean, which is a precarious position for a building also residing on-top of one of California’s fault-lines. All it would take is one little tremor and . . .
At a Q&A following a screening of My Entire High School, Shaw explained how his script was one half high school drama, one half disaster movie (the original kernel of the plot was a parody of Titanic). As the title suggests, the catastrophe arrives soon enough, plunging the multi-story school building into the water, where, as it drifts further away from land, it does indeed gradually sink deeper and deeper into the ocean. It is here that Shaw’s voice bursts into full-flower. He expertly mixes the tropes of the two genres, keeping both in equal measure. The trio of Dash, Assaf and Verti climb (sometimes literally) the levels of the school, trying their best to keep ahead of the rising waters. Along the way, they encounter the usual assortment of obstacles which prevents their escape from ever being easy. At the same time, their journey is full of the inanities of daily high school life. They must contend with a puffed up student assistant to administration, mean girls, and, in one particularly inspired section, the dismissive brosomeness of senior year jocks. All of these scenes are relayed through surreal imagery which at one point veers into a sequence of psychedelic abstraction. Events can get rather grisly, as when a girl is chomped into nothing by a group of sharks. However, there are also moments of stunning beauty, such as snow gently falling outside a window or a large butterfly gliding through the morning sky. Throughout Dash employs color to convey mood, in a manner similar to his comics art. This element, along with My Entire High School’s episodic structure, reflect how successfully Shaw adapts his comics style to film.
Of course, no creator’s voice springs from their head fully formed. When asked about the distinctive look of the film, Shaw cited his fondness for the flat animation of Astro Boy and A Charlie Brown Christmas, cartoons which retained the two-dimensional visual sensibilities of their source material. The Charlie Brown aesthetic is clearest in My Entire High School in one scene depicting characters dancing, their jerky, fixed in place movements reminiscent of the dance party breaks which interrupt the rehearsals for Charlie Brown’s Christmas pageant. These influences run deeper than surface appearances, however; there is a hint of Charlie Brown in Dash’s character. Throughout the entire ordeal, he is repeatedly confronted with the apathy of his peers. After giving a rousing call to action, the camera pans across the indifferent student body as background voices are heard muttering “who is that?” Even as the center of attention, Dash still cannot win acceptance. Sounds a bit like old Blockhead himself.
As clearly personal as Shaw vision is for My Entire High School, there is only so much he can do on his own. It might be conceivable that he produce a book like Doctors solo, but a feature length animated film would be near impossible. Shaw wrote, directed and provided some art for the animation. Jane Lambroski led a team of animators, while other skilled technicians added to the process. A talented cast brought the characters to life. As the main trio, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph and Reggie Watts convey the feeling of Shaw’s script without overplaying the emotions. Their restrained performances create a good counterbalance for the increasing outlandishness of the movie’s situations. Working together, all of these individuals assist Shaw in crafting a distinctive movie experience.
In Doctors, Shaw employed imaginary science as a means to investigate questions of regret, longing, mortality and frayed families. His plot may have been fantastic, yet, the emotions he conveyed were all too familiar. A similar approach invests My Entire High School with its staying power. Few, if any of us, have ever had to climb our high school’s elevator shaft in order to avoid drowning. All of us, though, can relate to being jealous or taking a friendship for granted. The brilliance of My Entire High School is how well Shaw expresses these universal adolescent tropes within the framework of the disaster genre. Then again, perhaps how well these elements blend should not be so surprising. After all, for most teenagers, what was high school, if not living in constant fear of some life ending disaster?